Though Apple and Google codeveloped a fairly sophisticated COVID-19 exposure-tracing system based on Bluetooth signals shared by Android phones and iPhones, the organization behind the Bluetooth standard believes there’s more to be done, specifically for wearables. Today, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) announced that it’s working with over 130 member companies to extend the smartphone exposure system to wrist-worn devices.

As the Bluetooth SIG notes, smartphones’ broad adoption makes them a logical foundation for an exposure notification system, but many kids and adults in care facilities don’t have smartphones. These are significant populations with real risks of COVID-19 exposure and may already wear Bluetooth wristbands. The trick is to have those devices serve as exposure tracers while following the same privacy and security protocols as a phone.

Logically enough, the SIG plans to have wearables participate in existing smartphone exposure notification systems rather than creating a separate system. The wearable will be able to detect proximity events — potential exposures — but will rely on another device’s connection to an exposure notification system to share data.

The SIG told VentureBeat that a smartphone or similar “internet-connected proxy device” will be required, a hurdle that in theory would limit the target populations’ use of the system, since they won’t have phones. But the group explained that while the wearable will be able to independently share its ID and gather IDs from other proximate devices, it will only “periodically” connect with the phone — which could be a parent’s device or a senior care facility’s shared phone — to update the network and user about potential contacts.

Extending tracing functionality to wearables comes with additional challenges. Wearables will also need to gather and share anonymized IDs while managing power in a way that doesn’t kill a small battery. While wearables with cellular functionality might be able to participate without a connected phone, they’re also somewhat less likely to be purchased for or by the targeted user populations, so the standard apparently won’t require self-connectivity.

The Bluetooth SIG expects to release an initial draft of the wearable specification “within the next few months” but isn’t offering any details on when companies might actually offer supporting devices. Apple and Google rolled out smartphone support quite rapidly, each relying on government-developed apps to manage data, a system that has slowed rollouts of the contact-tracing technology in some parts of the world. It remains to be seen whether the wearable solution will be deployed before the pandemic ends. But the technology may prove useful for future outbreaks, even if COVID-19 is under control before Bluetooth tracing wearables debut.


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